Bravo network's 'Top Chef' touches down at LSU

They use a style of cooking known as molecular gastronomy to craft intimate dinners. They use sous vide water baths and other highbrow equipment in what’s known as their batterie de cuisine.

But when the contestants on the Bravo network’s “Top Chef” touched down on LSU’s campus earlier this year, they faced a different challenge: How to feed a party of 400 using more pedestrian equipment such as soup kettles and tongs.

When the episode airs at 9 p.m. Wednesday, it will showcase the results of months of planning. It started at the beginning of the year when “Top Chef” producers reached out to LSU about wanting to see more of Louisiana. The popular reality show filmed its entire 11th season in New Orleans.

The show pits aspiring chefs against each other in a series of culinary challenges. They are critiqued and judged by professionals from the food and wine industry.

Contestants are kicked off the show during each episode.

“Top Chef” executive producer Matt Reichman explains that every season the show’s brain trust likes to give contestants a challenge in a setting where the competitors have to create a meal fit for a large group of people.

Reichman called it a “slam dunk” to incorporate LSU into the show.

“To have to feed a large number of students fun stuff, appeal to their college diets, was a challenge,” he said. “The chefs really had to think about the limitations of having some of their regular equipment missing and working with the food provided.”

Feeding 400 students on campus for a freshman orientation program is a far cry from the white tablecloth environment show contestants are used to. Perhaps the biggest challenge, Reichman said, was to make something students actually wanted to eat.

“The students’ palette may not have been exposed to a lot of the very high-end things a celebrated chef would prepare,” Reichman said.

So when viewers tune in to this week’s episode, Reichman says to expect “some interesting choices in what the chefs made.”

“Some chefs went for dishes they knew would resonate with students; others tried to push the envelope,” Reichman said. “They tried to do a little more.”

Any further detail of what happens is a mystery. From the show’s public relations staffers to Bravo producers and university executives, people with knowledge of the episode were tight-lipped last week. They would only say the LSU episode will not disappoint.

LSU’s point of contact for people looking to film on campus is Ashley Territo, assistant to the vice chancellor of finance and administrative services.

She said LSU had to scramble to find a venue and an event that could make for riveting television.

“The normal buzz on campus was not there because it was summer,” she said.

Territo and the university finally settled on prospective freshman going through an orientation program. They were scheduled to eat at what was formerly the Pentagon Dining Hall. Now it’s known simply as “The 5.”

“This idea was completely different and out of the box,” Territo said. “We threw the idea out there. The ‘Top Chef’ people kind of fell in love with the character of The 5.”

LSU Recreational Dining Director Charlie Casrill was in charge of making things work. He said the show’s advanced crew made three or four visits to campus before they were ready to film.

Casrill also had the job of stocking the pantry. He said he didn’t stock anything special in honor of the show.

“We serve 6,000 people a day. What we have covers the gamut, except we don’t carry some of the high-end proteins, starches and grains they usually use,” Casrill said. They had to use what we use.

“We also use industrial size equipment for batch cooking they were not used to,” Casrill said.

The “Top Chef” production team set up 24 hours prior to filming. The next day, the crew came in at 5 a.m. and started preparing for the show. They filmed until 2 p.m., Casrill said.

“We were all excited,” he said. “It worked out well and the students loved it.”